20 bullets killed Mario Woods. Would Tasers have saved him?

After San Francisco Police Department took a first step toward including Taser weapons in its arsenal Wednesday night, an autopsy report Thursday showed at least 20 police bullets killed Mario Woods, including 17 that struck the 26-year-old from the back.

After the Police Commission met amid protests against the move — and calls for Chief Greg Suhr’s ouster — an autopsy report released Thursday showed Woods suffered 21 gunshot wounds, many of them to the back of his body. The report further showed that Woods had methamphetamines and other drugs in his system when he was shot dead by five San Francisco police officers.

The report from the San Francisco medical examiner’s office found 20 penetrating gunshot wounds and one graze wound from a bullet.

A number of the wounds to his arms, back, head, abdomen, thighs and buttons were located on the back side of Woods’ body, and the report described 17 of them as having a “back to front” trajectory.

It is unclear how many bullets actually struck Woods, however. The report indicates that five projectiles, two copper jackets and numerous fragments were recovered during the autopsy, and that 27 bullet casings were found at the scene.

The report also showed Woods had drugs in his system including methamphetamine and amphetamines, marijuana, anti-depressants, cough syrup, nicotine and caffeine.

Attorney John Burris, who is representing Woods’ mother, Gwen Woods, Thursday called the number of shots, especially those to the back, “shocking,” and said the family was “devastated” to see it:

“It’s certainly consistent with officers unloading a weapon against a person who was not threatening them.”

Woods’ family has said that he suffered from mental health issues, and Burris said the officers also failed to assess Woods’ mental state and recognize that he was impaired.

Burris said:

“Because he had meth in his body, that’s not a death warrant. … Even not following commands by the police doesn’t justify using deadly force in this case.”

Woods’ family is pursuing a civil suit, and Burris has asked for a federal criminal investigation into the shooting. The U.S. Justice Department has announced a review of overall department policies and practices but not an investigation into Woods’ shooting.

Police say Woods matched the description of a suspect who had slashed someone with a knife in the same neighborhood, and when they spotted Woods, he was armed with a kitchen knife. At least ten officers responded to the scene, where he was ordered to drop the knife and was hit with “bean bag” projectiles, police say, in a failed attempt to get him to drop the knife.

A cell phone video from a bystander at the scene clearly shows police attempting to surround a hobbling and apparently injured Woods with their pistols drawn, as they and bystanders in the crowd repeatedly told him to drop the knife.

The video shows the 26-year-old black man attempting to escape and an officer moving directly into his path and then opening fire. At least four of the other officers present then began shooting as Woods dropped to the ground. The shooting soon hit social media, prompting outrage from many citizens, particularly the Afro-American community.

Chief Greg Suhr later told a community meeting that Woods had extended his knife toward police officers before he was shot but video footage of the shooting appears to show that Woods’ arms were at his sides when officers opened fire.

Jeremy Miller of the Idriss Stelley Foundation, an organization which advocates against police violence, told the Police Commission Wednesday night:

“The fact remains Mario Woods is not dead because the police did not have Tasers. … Mario Woods is dead because a brutal, unaccountable department continues to murder civilians and needs to be held to account. Greg Suhr needs to go! He’s not fit to be chief of police. We need real community oversight of the police! And if we’re talking about modifications in the use of force policy, they have to be modifications that have humanity in mind and not further arming and militarizing our law enforcement.”

Chief Suhr responded to critics and the Commission by saying that he is not pushing for all officers to be armed with Tasers, just a select few:

“A lot of effort has gone into redrawing the general orders on use of force, use of firearms and reporting … emphasizing the highest priority is safeguarding the sanctity of all human life, emphasizing thoughtful communication, de-escalation, proportionality, creating time and distance.”

Suhr added:

“I am not asking that the entire department get Tasers. I’m asking for about five percent, our SWAT team and our specialist officers be afforded Tasers. … They would only be allowed to use the Tasers or the conductive energy device when the suspect is armed with a weapon, short of firearm, and they would be prohibited from using that conductive energy device on an unarmed subject or a person who is only a danger to themselves in a variety of other situations. … So, with that I will submit these drafts to the commission for your consideration.”

Many in the audience voiced that arming any officers with Tasers is a mistake and sends the wrong message, including Andrea Prichett of Berkeley Cop Watch:

“What a horrible time it is for even this to be on your agenda, how disingenuous it is to look at the killing of Mario Woods as being somehow related to the lack of Tasers. … That is not what killed that man. What killed that man was an incredible lack of sensitivity to the value of black life. That’s what killed him.”

Prichett added:

“The fear is that what’s happening in the San Francisco Police Department is so deeply rooted in the culture of the department that it’s going to take a major overhaul and if you want anything resembling trust or effective relations with your community you have to fire those officers.”

In an apparent reference to a previous scandal in which a police corruption case led to revelations of extremely racist texting going on between SFPD officers, Prichett added:

“If you put any weapon into the hands of a racist, it is going to be used in a racist way…. If there’s not a fundamental cultural respect for human life, you are going to have a bad outcome.”

Citizen Bob Gorringe pointed out that the police already have another weapon at their disposal, but that was conspicuously absent in any video of the shooting:

“Greg Suhr is trying to deceive the residents of San Francisco into thinking that the murder-execution by SFPD of Mario Woods was an issue of an imperfect but legal police policy of Use of Force directives. … He stated that the Use Of Tasers would have prevented the death of Mario Woods, an empty argument given that the ‘use of nightsticks’ would have achieved the same ends.”

Gorringe added:

“Mario Woods was already incapacitated. He could barely stand up straight…. Take a look at the video. Does anyone see just one intelligent, well-trained cop with even his nightstick drawn? No, not a single one.”

Suzy Loftus, president of the Police Commission made the distinction between use of force and the overall culture of the department:

“What I will say, Chief, is in the President’s report on 21-st century policing, one of the first pages says ‘culture eats policy for lunch.’ … And I think what we’re hearing from a lot of folks is these are words on a page. … But I think it would be helpful to hear from you about how you believe the proposals of the department is going to impact the culture of the police department.”

Suhr responded:

“All these policies emphasize doing many other things, the greatest of which is creating time before resorting to the use of force. … Our firearm qualification is now an entire day; and the lion’s share of that day is emphasizing trying not to get into a situation where you might have to use force, let alone a firearm.

Suhr added:

“There’s a requirement now that all officers carry their nightsticks in gloves in their cars at all times. … The amount of times when an officer has to use significant force or lethal force happens in a matter of minutes. So for every five minutes you can lengthen an incident or an engagement, it becomes that much more practical that you may be able to resolve it without any force or at the very least with a minimum of force.”


Bay City News contributed information to this report.